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Mark Thwaite: What first drew you to Emily Bronte?And this is only a small fragment of a very interesting interview to a Brontë scholar. To read more about her other interests, her writing methods, etc. we suggest you head to The Book Depository and read the complete interview.
Janet Gezari: That’s easy: Wuthering Heights. Although I no longer read Wuthering Heights as a love story, or at least not as the kind of love story and marriage plot it has been taken to be, Emily Bronte’s novel always felt risky and fierce. The poems were less accessible, and the ones I found first in anthologies seemed to have fallen out of some context that was unfamiliar to me. Recovering that context was the project of the edition of the complete poems that I edited for Penguin. I was sure from the start that the important context for the poems wasn’t the Gondal narrative. Last Things tries to come to terms with all that supported, enabled, and endangered Emily’s poems.
MT: Virginia Woolf thought that Emily’s poetry would outlast her novels. At this vantage point in history, it looks like the novels are what she is remembered for, but the tide does seem to be turning a little. What are the main strengths of her verse Janet?
JG: I’d be surprised if the tide turned in this way, but not surprised if readers of Wuthering Heights came to see that the poems are risky and fierce also and that reading them can change the way we read the novel. I think that Woolf was right to see that Emily was driven by a “gigantic ambition” to say something about relations between “the whole human race” and “the eternal powers.” Joy was primal for her, as was violence, cruelty, and the anguish associated with limits and endings. She was moved to celebrate the life around her and bear witness to her participation in it, and her poems were a way to do this. I think they came to her as naturally as breath did.
MT: How singular is her poetry? Whilst we can understand the context in which Wuthering Heights arose, it is a unique book. Is her poetry the same?
JG: Well, yes, I think the context for Wuthering Heights and the poems is the same. The poems are singular — they are events in the peculiar creative life of Emily Bronte — and when we read the best of them, we can experience them as events in our own lives. I think about this as having the experience for which the poems discover release, and often the experience is spiritual. By spiritual, I don’t mean religious.
MT: How long did it take you to write Last Things?
JG: Too long, certainly by some measures. I started writing the book on a sabbatical year in London in 1995, and I continued writing it during shorter breaks from teaching. But the book didn’t grow by accretion. It had a shape from the start. I knew how many chapters there were and what they were about and how they were ordered, even though I didn’t write them in the order in which they appear. [...]
MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Last Things and how did you overcome them?
JG: I think the main challenge was to write a book that didn’t bury the poems under commentary but felt, at the same time, comprehensive and attentive. The body of work is small — under 200 surviving poems — and my aim was to get people to want to read them again. My professional training — and most of my teaching — is associated with novels, so this is probably the only book about poems I’ll write.